Earth Matters: Conte wildlife refuge is a 30x30 example for the nation

  • This peregrine falcon at the Fort River Division in Hadley is one of the many wildlife species that have benefited from collaborative federal and local conservation efforts within the Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge. CONTRIBUTED/RICK THAYER

For the Gazette
Monday, June 21, 2021

The song “America the Beautiful” is often considered an unofficial national anthem. This tribute to the land, its people and its aspirations was originally published as a poem on July 4, 1895 by Massachusetts-born feminist and poet Katherine Lee Bates. She spoke reverently of the beauty of our landscapes, “for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties” and called on us to seek “brotherhood from sea to shining sea.”

This call to pursue the common good across our shared landscapes is echoed in a proposal from the Biden administration called “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful.” With this initiative, our country is being called to work together on the first-ever nationally scaled goal to conserve at least 30% of our nation’s lands and waters by 2030.

Dubbed the “30x30” initiative, the proposal notes this ambitious goal reflects “the need to safeguard drinking water, clean air, food supplies and wildlife upon which we all depend; the need to fight climate change with the natural solutions that our forests, agricultural lands, and the ocean provide; and the need to give every child in America the chance to experience the wonders of nature.”

One of the core principles of this initiative is that federal agencies support local conservation efforts initiated within communities, for communities. Local and regional land trusts — nonprofit land conservation organizations — are strong drivers of this work, helping communities achieve their own goals of creating public parks and trails, protecting wildlife habitat, and saving local farmland.

In fact, according to the Land Trust Alliance, over the past 40 years the nation’s 1,300-plus land trusts have conserved approximately 60 million acres — more than the land contained in all of America’s national parks. It’s clear that land trust partnerships with towns, cities, states, and federal agencies are integral to achieving this national goal.

An excellent example of the collaboration championed in the proposal is right here in the Northeast: the Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, named for our longtime (1959-91) member of Congress.

The Conte Refuge, established in 1991, is unique. Its geographic scale is vast, covering the entire watershed from the Connecticut River’s headwaters in Vermont and New Hampshire to where it meets the sea at Long Island Sound in Connecticut — 7.2 million acres in all. It was designed this way to support collaborations with local communities.

The refuge’s expansive boundary does not mean that all the land within it can — or should — be protected as public land, but it serves as a guide for prioritizing local areas that support the watershed’s valuable interconnected ecosystems.

Since 1997, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and partner organizations including local land trusts have protected nearly 39,500 acres across all four states as part of the Conte refuge. This includes 22 conserved areas such as the 362-acre Fannie Stebbins Memorial Wildlife Refuge in Longmeadow, the 249-acre Mill River Division in Northampton, and the nearly 300-acre Fort River Division in Hadley that includes a public — and popular — universally accessible trail through meadows, forests and wetlands.

The Conte refuge plays an essential role in maintaining resilient human and natural communities. Conserving floodplains and farms along the river, forests in its headwaters, and wetlands in between reduces flood risk in our communities, recharges groundwater to help deal with drought, and stores carbon to fight the climate crisis.

At the same time, much of the refuge provides natural wildlife “corridors” and habitats that can sustain biodiversity by helping species move and adapt to a changing climate.

The refuge also provides opportunities for recreation and connection to nature, many close to urban areas. In fact, there are more than 400 cities and towns with a combined population of 2 million people who live, work and play in the Connecticut River watershed. New England can be proud that our efforts can serve as a model for the entire country.

With the announcement of the new 30x30 national goal, land trusts are working with local communities and federal agencies to make the most of this window of opportunity at the national level. The Friends of the Conte — comprising over 70 public and private organizations, from national groups like The Nature Conservancy to regional land trusts like Kestrel Land Trust, to small volunteer watershed groups — already have more than 1,000 acres of conservation projects in progress throughout the refuge.

As the country works to recover from the impact of the pandemic and address the triple challenges of the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and land access inequities, the administration’s report underscores that, “now is the time to develop and pursue a locally led, nationally scaled effort to conserve, connect, and restore the lands, waters and wildlife upon which we all depend.”

The 30x30 initiative has the power to protect our piece of “America the Beautiful” in the Valley that sustains and inspires all of us.

Kari Blood is communications and outreach manager for Kestrel Land Trust, which serves on the Executive Committee of the Friends of Conte: friendsofconte.org/.

Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 12 years. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Hitchcock Center adapted its programming and launched a sliding-scale fee structure for families. To help the Hitchcock Center survive this difficult time, consider a donation at hitchcockcenter.org.